Friday, January 8, 2010

Sound Science vs. Special Interest Attack Dogs, Round 98,237...

A group of scientists headed by researchers from the University of Maryland waded into political sticky wicket this week when they published a report [subscription] in the presigious journal Science calling for an end to the destructive coal mining practice of mountaintop removal.

According to numerous news reports, the team led by Margaret Palmer of the UMD Center for Environmental Sciences said that the massive damage done to water quality and public health by the practice - in which entire mountain summits are blasted and then bulldozed into neighboring streams - strongly outweighs its benefits.

Per coverage by West Virginia Public Broadcasting (a network which covers a state whose name is almost synonymous with the practice of mountaintop removal), the report found that the human health impacts of this disastrous mining practice are considerable:
West Virginia University Department of Community Medicine researcher Michael Hendryx was another co-author of the paper. He spoke about the potential impact to human health. His research shows that disease and death rates are higher around surface mining, even when other health risks, like smoking and poverty are factored out.

“We also see that the effects become stronger as the level of mining increases,” Hendryx said.

Hendryx’s research has also found higher rates of low birth weight babies and babies born with abnormalities in communities where there’s surface mining.
The history of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia is replete with horrifying tales of the practice's ill-effects on public health in communities near the mines. In September of last year, we at R?S? posted a New York Times profile of one town's struggle:
Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.
In the face of this mountain (Really? They're doing a "mountain" pun?) of bad press, both now and back in September, how did the coal industry respond?

Well... predictably. Shockingly so.

Almost every article on the scientists' report contains a quote from a coal industry spokesperson launching personal attacks against the scientists. For example, the Baltimore Sun piece:
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said he had not yet read the Science paper, but based on press reports of it declared that “there’s nothing new here” and called the journal paper “an advocacy piece."
...and the Washington Post piece:
Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association disputed the report's conclusions. "It's just flat-out wrong," Hamilton said, adding that the "so-called lead scientists have a history of activism against mining."
...and the ABC News piece:
NMA spokeswoman Carol Raulston also argues the scientists chose data selectively, ignoring water-quality information that didn't support their theories.
It would appear as if these many coal industry flacks were perhaps - just maybe - working from the same snarly set of talking points. That, or they saw how much play the science-deniers who pushed the phony East Anglia "stolen email scandal" had gotten, and were just a wee bit jealous. Everyone together now:

"Anything Big Oil flacks can do, Big Coal flacks can do better..."

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